IN 1968, Stephen Sondheim and his actor buddy Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame hosted their first game night called the Halloween Hunt that had friends searching for clues to solve an elaborate puzzle.
Everyone had so much fun that the puzzle-game fanatics were inspired to write the script for The Last of Sheila, a 1973 movie whodunit about an eccentric producer who sets out to discover the identity of his wife's killer by inviting six Hollywood types aboard his yacht to participate in a mysterious scavenger hunt. Although it earned mixed reviews, the pair won the 1974 Edgar Award for best motion picture screenplay.
City stage troupe Resonator Theatrical is the only non-musical entry of SondheimFest, presenting its own stage adaptation of The Last of Sheila. Adaptor Rob Brown has relocated the setting to a rehearsal hall, where a group of people have been called by Clinton, the slick director/host who lost his wife Sheila exactly a year ago outside their home in an unsolved hit-and-run-accident. He invites five of the people who were with him that night along with Lee, who was unable to attend because of illness.
Clinton hands out scripts with envelopes that contain a secret about each of them. The purpose of game, which the manipulative Clinton dubs "the Sheila Green memorial gossip game," is to find out who belongs to each secret. What quickly becomes apparent is that each player's true guilty secret is assigned to someone else. Clinton, it seems, has something on everyone and he will use the fun game as a ruse to discover who killed his wife.
What follows is a real-life version of Clue, while also bringing to mind the movie Sleuth and Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Of course, there are plot twists, misdirections and sleuthy revelations that should be entertaining but never register much significance. Director Kimberley Hamilton fails to create characters that the audience can differentiate and, ideally, care about. Without that critical foundation, the heavily-plotted cat-and mouse game that is at the heart of The Last of Sheila is much ado about nothing.
Hamilton tries to help the audience by incorporating an onstage scoreboard with the names of the six players but none of the real actors make a deep impression until long past caring. The game that should be afoot is a flop.
The only time that the 90-minute drama made an authentic impression was during a creepy candle-lit scene when the cast were all dressed as monks and with their hoods up made them indistinguishable as they hurried around the set slamming doors in search of clues. It ends predictably with a murder when one of the characters turns up "deader than disco." The raised stakes finally create some promise of entertainment but it turns out to be a red herring and we are no closer to discovering why the show is uninvolving. The mystery as to the identity of the killers is revealed to little reaction among the dozen patrons in the audience.
The seven-member cast know their material but the verbal repartee needs to be much crisper and delivered with more punch. There was a decided slackness to the overall production when tautness and colourful characterization are required. There is no mystery to presenting a successful whodunit.
The Last of Sheila
Until Feb. 2 at Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre
Tickets: $15, $10 students/seniors
Two and a half stars